A Trip to Astor part 2: Bourbon,
Bait & Tackle, & A Fish Called Ralph
June 18, 2015
On my last blog, I wrote about taking a jaunt for a little fishing to Astor, a small Florida town situated right on the magnificent St. John’s. I booked a cottage on a canal leading into the river, and the owner reported that fishing for specks (or black crappie), bass and bream was excellent off the dock.
(Our dock looking down to the St. John's River)
With my partner Tom - who came along reluctantly as his idea of a cottage is one attached to a Cotswold’s manor house - and our friends Barbara and Carter in tow, we arrived that Friday afternoon to spend what was to be a relaxing and totally enjoyable three day mini-vacation. The house was just as the website had described, and looked right into the dark, clear waters that would prove to be home of some of the largest crappies I’d ever caught. The outdoor setting was especially beguiling at night; our trip was timed during a full-moon, and watching it rise over the river was magical. Sitting out in the edge of the Ocala National Forest, without the glare of city lights, the stars were an astounding sight, and looked like someone had spread a blanket of white Christmas lights against a black backdrop. After unpacking, I went to purchase some bait minnows.
I found the closest store was just off the river around the corner; the big “Bait and Tackle” sign was faded, and set against an old windowless store front; rustic, but I was not here for high-tech angling. I walked through the doors, and the familiar smells of a bait shop were evident: the rusty, dry scent of crickets, a little earthiness from the tubs of night crawlers, and the aroma of fish coming from the minnow pools.
(Bourbon, Bait or Tackle? Your choice....)
What I did not expect, though, was the distinct aroma of beer being poured from a tap, a haze of cigarette smoke, and a full-service bar with a number of patrons gathered round for a 3 p.m. toddy. Back in the Bible belt of middle Georgia you might find someone who would sell you a beer or two from under the counter of a bait store, but nairy a one I knew that would pour you a spot of Jack Daniels on the rocks. Though I probably stood there with my mouth open and a confused look on my face, the folks all greeted me with a “hi” or a friendly nod of the head. The lady behind the bar came out from the bottles and glasses and scooped me up a few dozen shiners for my minnow bucket. She was good at multi-tasking, evidently.
Back at the cottage, I set myself up on the dock to do a little fishing, not really expecting to catch anything. I was happy just being close to the water and taking the chance to rest. But I had hardly hooked my minnow and thrown it in the canal, fishing about 3’ deep, when my cork bobbed once, and then was gone underwater. I reeled in a magnificent black crappie that must’ve weighed at least 2 pounds – just beautiful with dark markings, lines of silver and with just a touch of mint green colorings shining in the sunlight.
(Ralph the Speck visiting off the dock)
I did a selphie with my iPhone (which then smelled like fish for two days) and released the fish back into the water. Excited, I baited my hook again, and a few minutes later another crappie was on the line. This time I hollered for my friends to come see my prize, who dutifully came out and admired the fish. My luck continued, and each time I pulled in another spec, I called for my buddies. Tiring of making that long, arduous 25’ or so trek from the porch to the dock, they said they’d seen enough after about my fifth or sixth catch. And they decided to rib me just a bit to have a little fun. Ha….Ha…
(Me and my frequent buddy, “Ralph”)
“John, honey, you know you just keep catching the same fish over and over again, don’t you?” Barbara asked, pointing to the fish dangling from my line. “Yes, believe you’re right, dear,” Carter, chimed in. “They all look just alike - gotta be the same one. Johnathon can’t be catching that many fish.” “He must be an awfully nice fellow to keep biting John’s line. Let’s start calling him “Ralph” so the next time he comes up, we can give him a proper hello”, Tom added, and they all had a nice chuckle at my expense. “Why don’t you all just kiss my butt and go on inside and leave me and “Ralph” to a little peace and quiet, huh?” I turned my back on them as they laughed, dropping the newly christened fish back into the water off the side of the dock.
I saw him again another two or three times that day until the sun started to set, and Barbara’s promise of some peel-and-eat shrimp for cocktail hour started to have a mighty pull on my appetite, so I put away my tackle in exchange for a little libation and refreshment.
And, too, I figured Ralph, a "reel" sport-of-a-speck, could use a good rest…. he’d been awfully busy entertaining me all afternoon.